Margaret Atwood: Gabrielle Roy, in nine parts

Margaret Atwood: Gabrielle Roy, in nine parts

Gabrielle Roy walking on the Plains of Abraham, Quebec City, circa 1956.

Gabrielle Roy walking on the Plains of Abraham, Quebec City, circa 1956. (Photograph from “Album Gabrielle Roy”, from Francois Ricard)


On what would have been the 108th birthday of Gabrielle Roy, Margaret Atwood considers the life and legacy of a quintessentially Canadian author who still resonates today

1. Preamble

I read my first work by Gabrielle Roy when I was sixteen. It was 1956. I was in my last year at a suburban Toronto high school.

The Second World War had ended barely a decade earlier, yet to us it felt like ancient history. Many things about that war, including the Holocaust, had been deliberately buried. The Cold War was underway; West Germany was an important ally, and needed to be treated with tact. The U.S.S.R.—such an essential partner in the war—was now the enemy, and Smiling Uncle Joe Stalin had become Evil Big Brother. A whole sheaf of wartime attitudes and memes had been tossed out along with the rationing books. The post-war cornucopia of consumer goods was in high spew.

At the beginning of the 1950s, propaganda images of domestic bliss had been promoted to hustle women out of the work force, making way for the men returning from the war. The baby boom was in full swing, and four kids, an automatic washer, and a split-level bungalow was the ideal pushed by advertisers and politicians alike. Although Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe was published in 1949 and translated in 1953, second-wave feminism was nowhere to be seen, or not by us high school students. (The book did not gain traction with our generation until Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963. Moreover, we felt that these books described our mothers and grandmothers, not us.)

Nor were the boys of our age bedevilled by the woes of the men in grey flannel suits, veterans used to a lot more adrenaline than a nine- to-five job could provide. These men were already being lured away from their bungalows and wives into Playboy Bunnyland by their fellow vet Hugh Hefner.

By comparison, we teenagers of the 1950s were floating in what might be called the Early Betty and Veronica Age. Archie Comics still described a reality we could identify as ours: old-maid schoolteachers, balding and comical principals, and girls who made pans of brownies in Home Economics so the boys taking Shop could make yum-yum noises and rub their stomachs. Sex was Archie with a heart drawn above his head. That was as far as things went, because love and marriage went together like a horse and carriage. Nobody had got around, yet, to asking the horse about its opinion.

Meanwhile, in the wider world, annihilation by atomic bomb hovered as a fearful possibility, and McCarthyism had made any talk of social welfare or workers’ rights sound almost treasonably Communist. Since the Hungarian Revolution had just been quashed by Soviet tanks, we all knew what a bad thing Communism was. Catchwords that had been all the rage in the 1930s and the 1940s were now out. You couldn’t say “working class” or even “world peace” any more without attracting suspicious glances. In the world of B movies, invasions of Martians who would take over your brain and turn you against your fellow citizens were much in vogue: outer space was full of Communists, evidently, but so was inner space. They were everywhere.

Thus, Gabrielle Roy’s masterpiece of 1945, Bonheur d’Occasion, must have seemed like dangerous fare to the nervous educators of the 1950s. Not only did it blurt out “the working class” right on its 1947 American-edition flyleaf, but it focused on economic and social inequalities, and its most idealistic character looked forward to a “just society.” After Roy, we’d have to wait for Pierre Trudeau’s leadership speech in 1968 to hear this phrase given such pride of place again. (It’s odd to remember this now, when the themes of the “1 per cent” income equalization, and job creation have taken centre stage once more, but that’s how it was in the timorous 1950s.)

Gabrielle Roy between her sisters Adele and Bernadet. (Photograph from “Album Gabrielle Roy”, from Francois Ricard)

2. Gabrielle Roy in the Hands of Mme. Wiacek

The Cold War politics of the day may explain why it was Gabrielle Roy’s La Petite Poule d’Eau that was on my high school curriculum, rather than Bonheur d’Occasion.

Roy’s novel was a set text for the French Literature final examination, and those finals determined whether a student would go to university. We élèves pored over every word under the guidance of our meticulous teacher, Madame Wiacek. As her name might suggest, Madame Wiacek was neither French nor Québécois; she was Polish—French being, at that time, the second language of choice for educated Poles.

Thus it was that a roomful of Canadian anglophones with terrible accents were studying French through a book written by a francophone from Manitoba, under the often amused tutelage of a woman who’d escaped both the Nazis and the Russians, immigrated to Canada, and somehow fetched up in a middle-class and very mundane post-war suburb of Toronto.

The most alarming event on the horizon was not likely to be an invasion of storm troopers or commissars, but the Friday night hop, at which a bunch of adolescents rocked and rolled around the gymnasium under the supervision of the German teacher, who was Bulgarian, and the Latin teacher, who was of Indian descent by way of Trinidad. This ethnic mix of students and teachers was not untypical: our high school fancied itself as Scottish, though some students were Chinese and a number of them were Armenian. This incongruous mixture was very Canadian, and would have been fully appreciated by Gabrielle Roy herself—for among the many areas of Canadian life that she explored, long before this exploration became fashionable, was its ethnic multiplicity.

The approach we took to Gabrielle Roy’s book was intensely French. We practised the classic explication de texte—a close reading of the work itself. We unravelled the sentence structures of the text, but discovered little about its author. In English studies, too, New Criticism was the favoured method, so biography was barely glanced at: we learned everything about The Mayor of Casterbridge but nothing about Thomas Hardy’s life (possibly just as well, considering its gloom).

This absence of biography was normal for me at the time, but it seems very curious now—especially since the story of Gabrielle Roy is just as interesting as the story of Luzina Tousignant, the heroine of La Petite Poule d’Eau. Who was Gabrielle Roy? How did she become a writer? And why was her work chosen for a high school curriculum otherwise dominated by European authors, in both French and English? Dead male European authors, I might add. There were a couple of women among the English ones, but they, too, were dead.

Yet here was a living female Canadian author, still alive, right on our curriculum. This astonishing fact passed without comment. The dreaded dictée hogged all our attention in our French class, and matters such as gender and nationality and class and colonialism and the bizarre circumstances of individual artists’ lives were hidden in the wings, preparing to make their appearance onstage over the next decade.

But the unknown wise and good who selected Gabrielle Roy must have had their reasons. How did Gabrielle Roy pass their scrutiny?

Gabrielle Roy her first-grader class at Provencher School, St. Boniface, 1935. (Photograph from “Album Gabrielle Roy”, from Francois Ricard)

3. Gabrielle Roy was very famous

The short answer is that Gabrielle Roy was very famous. We weren’t told about this fame of hers, but her fame was well known to the generation of teachers who’d chosen her.

The book that had made her so famous was Bonheur d’Occasion, her first novel. The French original was published in Montreal in 1945, just as the Second World War was drawing to a close. The translation, entitled The Tin Flute, appeared in English in 1947, and was adopted as the monthly selection by the Literary Guild of America—at that time a major force in publishing. The bestselling first print run was seven hundred thousand, a number that would be almost unheard of today, especially for a literary novel. There followed a triumph in France, where this book was the first Canadian novel to win the prestigious Prix Femina. It also won the Canadian Governor General’s Award.

A film contract was signed, translation rights were sold in twelve languages, and Gabrielle Roy became a literary celebrity—so much so that she returned to Manitoba to escape from the demands being made upon her by the press and her admirers. The scale of her success was unprecedented for a Canadian writer, surpassing even that of Gwethalyn Graham, whose 1944 novel, Earth and High Heaven, was the first Canadian book to top the New York Times bestseller chart.

Gabrielle Roy in Manitoba, at the time when she was making her debut as an amateur theatre actress and beginning to write short stories. (Photograph from “Album Gabrielle Roy”, from Francois Ricard)

4. A Cinderella story, more or less

Part of Roy’s appeal was her rags-to-riches Cinderella story. But Gabrielle Roy had no fairy godmother: she’d come up the hard way, and most Canadians could empathize with that, having come up the hard way themselves. Moreover, the hard way was in literary vogue: the roaring twenties gave us tales of the rich and profligate such as The Great Gatsby, but the dirty thirties had been characterized by such iconic poor people books as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Plutocrats were out, except in romance novels; “the masses” were in. Not only Gabrielle Roy’s novel, but her life, was in tune with the times.

Roy was born in Saint Boniface, a largely francophone district of Winnipeg. Her parents were both immigrants to Manitoba, attracted by the boom times following Confederation. Her father was originally from the Acadian community of New Brunswick; her mother was from Quebec. Politically Léon Roy was a Liberal, and when Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals gained power in 1896, he was employed by the federal government as an immigration agent, helping foreign incomers settle in the province. (But live by the government, die by the government: when the Conservatives won the election of 1915, M. Roy was fired, six months short of a pension.)

Although Roy’s family wasn’t wealthy, it was never dirt poor. Before he lost his job, M. Roy was able to build a large house on Rue Deschambault, in a newly developed section of Saint Boniface. It was this house that became the focus of Roy’s semi-autobiographical series of stories, the 1955 Rue Deschambault. (Translated as Street of Riches.)

Gabrielle was the youngest of eleven children, of whom eight were living. Her year of birth was 1909, the same as my own mother’s. Thus, by the time of Roy’s extraordinary fame, she was just over forty. She was five when the First World War broke out, nine when it ended, and ten when the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic swept the planet, killing twenty million worldwide, including fifty thousand Canadians—which, in a population of eight and a third million people, was substantial.

During Roy’s childhood, smallpox was still a killer, as were tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, red measles, tetanus, and polio. Infant mortality rates were high, as were maternal death rates. Both having a baby and being a baby were riskier than they are now, and this is worth noting since babies feature largely in Roy’s work.

Also in 1919 the Winnipeg General Strike took place—perhaps the single most important event in the history of Canadian labour. Roy’s political leanings—Liberal, egalitarian, sympathetic toward the exploited—were formed early in her life, not only by the events around her, but by her family’s attitude towards them.

Roy’s family was francophone, but due to a legislative quirk she received a bilingual education. When Manitoba was established as a province in 1870 it was bilingual. However, over the decades the status of French as an official language had declined, and in 1916, when Gabrielle Roy was seven, Manitoba passed a law making English the only language of instruction in public schools. (This move was deeply resented by francophones, who saw it as a gross betrayal of the province’s founding principles.) But Roy attended the nun-run Académie Saint-Joseph for twelve years, where she was educated in both English and French. Thus not only was she fluently bilingual, she had access to the great literatures of both languages. For a future novelist, this was a tremendous advantage.

The direction Roy took after receiving her grade twelve diploma was a common one for young women of her era. She went to Normal School—a crash course for young teachers—and became a public school teacher in rural schools. The job choices for young women were not numerous, especially during the Depression years, which began in 1929 when Roy was twenty. Roy then obtained an English-language school in Winnipeg, so she could teach and live in her parents’ home at the same time.

Roy saved up her teaching money, but unlike many young women, she did not then get married. Instead she went to Europe with the intention of becoming a professional actress.

During her school-teaching years Roy had been acting, in both French and English. The companies were of the kind that abounded in the Canada of those days—semi-amateur “little theatres”—and Roy acted with both the Cercle Molière and the Winnipeg Little Theatre. She was passionate about acting, and due to some favourable critical reception, thought she might make a career of it. Looking at photos of her as a young woman it’s easy to see why: she had the high cheekbones and chiselled features of the screen beauties of the 1930s. At the same time she was writing, and had managed to get some pieces published in periodicals both local and national.

In 1937 she was ready to make her move. It was a move that Canadians and indeed Americans bent on an artistic career of any kind—painting, acting, music, writing—had been making for decades. You needed to expand your horizons; you needed to travel to Europe, where art was taken seriously, or so went the myth. (As this was still the pattern in the early 1960s when I myself was a young artist, I understand it well.)

Despite hostility from her family—as an unmarried daughter, wasn’t it her duty to stay at home and take care of her aged, widowed mother?—off to Europe Roy duly went. Her first stop was Paris, where she stayed only a couple of weeks—I speculate that she had some problems with her “provincial” accent and the resulting snobbery, which North American francophones have been known to experience. Then she went to England. In those days the British Empire still existed, and it was fairly easy for Canadians to get into Britain. In London, Roy mingled with other young expatriates, including friends from Manitoba. She also enrolled in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which had added “Drama” to its name only two years previously.

Guildhall was not the top drama school in England, but even so it must have been demanding for Roy. It’s hard to imagine what the experience must have been like for someone of Roy’s intense and ambitious character. Amateur theatre in Canada was one thing, but it would have been much more difficult in England, land of actors, for Roy to maintain her acting dream. In each of the cultural capitals of her world—Paris, London—Roy would have been swiftly identified as being from the margins; indeed, the margins of the margins. Manitoba—where was that? In fact, Canada—where was that? Up to the 1970s, when I myself experienced it, this was the attitude of English people to colonial upstarts. (It was not the attitude in Scotland, Ireland, or Wales, but that’s not where Roy travelled.)

So, while doing the usual young-tourist things—the visits to the museums, to the theatres, to the countryside—Roy fell back on her second string, writing. A talent for mimicry can come in handy in fiction just as it does on the stage. She already had some previous publication experience, and she managed to place three pieces in an important Paris magazine. It was in England, paradoxically, that she became convinced of her vocation as a writer, and of her chances of success.

It was now 1939. As many foresaw, a second world war was on the way. Roy made one last visit to France, this time to the countryside, then sailed back to Canada in April. Despite more family pressure—having had her fling, shouldn’t she now be supporting her aged mother?—she did not return to Saint Boniface. Instead she settled in Montreal, where she began the long, hard, dedicated grind that would result, five years later, in the great success of Bonheur d’Occasion.

Gabrielle Roy interviewing Quebec Premier Adelard Godbout, 1942. (Photograph from “Album Gabrielle Roy”, from Francois Ricard)

5. Montreal, Sin City

Montreal at that time was the only Canadian city comparable to New York. It was the financial capital of Canada—bustling, cosmopolitan, multilingual, and sophisticated, with impressive architecture both ancient and Victorian, and a lively nightclub scene frequented by A-list jazz musicians. It was also Sin City, known for its freely flowing liquor, its many prostitutes, and its civic corruption.

Toronto was small and provincial by comparison: Protestant-dominated, repressed, and stiff with “blue laws” that dictated such things as who could drink what, and when (almost nobody, almost nowhere). Ottawa, although the capital of the country, was thought to be even duller than Toronto. Vancouver then was a smallish port, as was Halifax. Winnipeg had made its bid for glory toward the end of the nineteenth century—the completion of the trans-Canadian rail-way made it a staging point for Western products such as wheat and cattle—but the glory had not lasted. Calgary and Edmonton were still small bumps on the railway. But Montreal was in full bloom, even though it was a festering lily rather than a spotless rose.

And there was Gabrielle Roy, inspecting it with a critical outsider’s eye. She had to work hard to make a living, as she was a freelancer, not an employee of a newspaper like Mavis Gallant, who was working for the Montreal Standard at points during this period. In the war years of the early 1940s, Roy wrote for several periodicals, including Le Jour and La Revue moderne. She also wrote for Le Bulletin des agriculteurs, which, notwithstanding its title and its rural readership, was a general-interest magazine. For it she wrote several long series of what we would now call “investigative journalism.” For these various magazines she was also writing “reportages”—non-action about current events—as well as descriptive pieces, which could contain impressions as well as observations. In addition, she was contributing essays, which would contain well-argued opinions.

These projects took Roy into the intimate life of the city, especially its seamier side. She was able to take a keen look at Montreal, especially its lowest layer, where she saw abject, dead-end misery up close. Though she herself had grown up in modest circumstances, she’d never lived in an urban slum. Her own family had experienced some belt-tightening, especially after the death of her father, but nothing compared to the hardscrabble life she was now witnessing.

Following Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel Two Solitudes, it had become fashionable to think of Canada as divided into two kinds of people—francophones and anglophones—who did not communicate with each other. But Montreal contained a third solitude: the Jewish community. This last group was soon to be given in-depth literary treatment by Mordecai Richler, a teenager growing up in the Saint Urbain district while Roy was writing her first novel. And, like Richler, Roy identified yet another layer of solitude, since the extreme poverty she saw first-hand in the Saint-Henri slums just down the hill from rich and privileged Westmount was fully as isolating as ethnicity and religion. The great divide in Bonheur d’Occasion is not only linguistic. It’s a class divide.

Gabrielle Roy in the St. Henri district of Montreal, where the action of Bonheur d’occasion takes place, circa 1945. (Conrad Poirier; photograph from “Album Gabrielle Roy”, from Francois Ricard)

6. Bonheur d’Occasion, its appeal and strengths

Bonheur d’Occasion was a novel that made radical departures from tradition while weaving in other strands familiar to readers in both French and English. It challenged received opinions, including patriotism, religious piety, the position of women, and the expectations of what was still called, unselfconsciously, “the working class.”

The book was ahead of its time, but not so far ahead that it left its readers behind. It was unsparing in its observations, but not overly judgmental about its characters. It described hard times and hard people, but it allowed the occasional dollop of empathy to soften its gaze.

The title, Bonheur d’Occasion, has several layers of meaning in French: “bonheur” is “happiness,” but though “d’occasion” can mean “used” or “second-hand,” it can also mean “bargain,” “chance,” or “opportunity.” So, a shopworn happiness that is also a happy chance. This describes the determining events in the lives of the novel’s main characters, who snatch at whatever small, tawdry opportunities fate makes available to them.

The English publishers wisely concluded that they couldn’t cram all of these meanings into a snappy title. They fell back on The Tin Flute, which points to a significant object in the novel: the tin flute is a toy passionately desired by little Daniel Lacasse, which, although cheap, is nonetheless too expensive for his impoverished mother. He finally gets his longed-for flute when he’s dying in the hospital of what is described as “leukemia,” but by then he’s no longer interested in it. And so it goes, for quite a few of the characters in this densely populated book.

All novels come from their own time. For Bonheur d’Occasion, this is wartime. Money is chinking, but it’s not chinking for everyone: the effects of the Great Depression are still being felt, and many lives have been warped by it.

Roy rarely names her characters without having a semi-hidden meaning in mind. You’ll be told by name-tracing ancestry sites that “Lacasse”—the family name at the novel’s core—comes from a Gaulish word for “oak,” that sturdy and useful tree, and may also refer to a box-maker. But “casser” is the verb “to break.” The Lacasse family contains some oaks at least sturdy enough to survive despite what they’ve been through, but they’re nonetheless trapped in a box. They’re also broken: they limp rather than sprint. Even so, they’re losing ground.

The father of the twelve Lacasse children—eleven when the book opens, ten when one of them dies, but eleven again when another one is born—is named “Azarius.” This isn’t a common name, even in the French Canada of that time. It’s the name of a sedative herb, but it’s also the name of a Biblical character. In the French version of the Bible, “Azariah” is the name given to one of the three youths put into the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel.

In English translations, the “Prayer of Azariah” is omitted as apocryphal, but it appears in Catholic versions after Daniel 3:23. Part of it goes like this: “And thou didst deliver us into the hands of lawless enemies, most hateful forsakers of God, and to an unjust king, and the most wicked in all the world. And now we cannot open our mouths, we are become a shame and a reproach to thy servants; and to them that worship thee. Yet deliver us not up wholly.”

Gabrielle Roy’s character names have a tendency toward irony, so Azarius Lacasse is no Biblical hero. Instead he’s an impractical dreamer who goes from one job to another, always with the idea that he’s going to make it big with some new scheme. He spends a lot of time shooting the breeze with other men from Saint-Henri, coming in late, and getting fired. As his eldest daughter Florentine puts it, he never has much luck.

But if I’m right about the derivation of his name, we see the head of the Lacasse family undergoing an ordeal by fire at the hands of a wicked and unjust king. In the context of the novel, the unjust king would seem to be Montreal’s wealthy and powerful—the manipulators of the social system who, in wartime, ask everything from the men of Saint-Henri including their lives, but deal out only injustice and inequality in return. One Saint-Henri man who has enlisted in the army puts the case. Finding himself in Westmount, home of the wealthy English, he muses:

“Looking up toward the high fences, the winding gravel walks, the sumptuous facades of the houses, he wondered: Do they give all they have to give?

The rich, polished stone glittered like steel, hard, indecipherable. And suddenly he felt the enormity of his presumption and of his innocence. . . . ‘Nothing on earth is to be had cheaper than your life. We others, stone, iron, steel, silver and gold, we’re the things that cost dear.’ “

If these unjust kings require their arms, legs, and lives from the men of Saint-Henri, what do they require of the women? In a word: babies. Not just any babies: babies born in wedlock, since society had no great wish to support orphanages.

In Quebec, this was the age of la revanche des berceaux—the revenge of the cradles. The term originated in Quebec before the First World War, the theory being that if French Canada could succeed in breeding faster than the English, they could out-populate them and thus avenge the fall of New France and the subsequent anglophone domination. Thus motherhood—especially prolific motherhood—was officially promoted and idealized, whipped on by both the Church and the civic authorities in Quebec. Families of ten, twelve, fourteen or more children were praised, and their mothers were seen to be doing their duty to the francophone Catholic community.

Those who paid with their bodies, their health, and the health of their children were the women of the fertile poor—the rural poor, who got a fictional going-over somewhat later by Marie-Claire Blais in her 1965 novel Une Saison dans la Vie d’Emmanuel, but especially the urban poor, who lived in slum conditions even more crowded than those on barebones farms. Babies were born with minimal care and ceremony: public health care had not yet been instituted, and hospitals were dreaded—partly because of the expense, but also because of the humiliation. While hospitals might waive their fees for the poor, such patients were looked down on as charity cases. In Saint-Henri, babies were more likely to be delivered by midwives at home than in hospitals by doctors.

In this, as in much else, the family’s mother, Rose-Anna Lacasse, is typical: she avoids hospitals. “Rose-Anna” is a maternal name, for “Rose” is the “rosa mystica,” a term for the Virgin Mary, and “Anna” is Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin. Rose-Anna’s entire life is centred on her family. She wears herself out slaving to put food on the table and keep a roof over the head of her brood, though the family is always hanging by a thread. They live packed in like sardines, barely making ends meet, and are kicked from one substandard dwelling to another— dwellings sought out by Rose-Anna.

Rose-Anna doesn’t get much thanks for her efforts: she’s exploited by the older children, especially the mooching oldest son, Eugène, and also resented by them when she asks them to contribute to the family’s expenses.

Every once in a while, Rose-Anna breaks down and delivers an outpouring of misery: The family is falling apart, there’s nowhere she can turn, what can be done? She can’t pay enough attention to the younger children because there are simply too many of them. When she finally takes little Daniel to the hospital because of the big purple bruises on his legs, the doctor upbraids her with a lecture about malnutrition. No wonder the pre-adolescent daughter Yvonne says, when asked if she’s looking forward to growing older and getting married, that, on the contrary, she intends to be a nun. A religious vocation was almost the only alternative to a life of constant childbearing—unless of course you could afford to go to Normal School and become a schoolteacher.

The novel’s other main female character is Rose-Anna’s eldest child, Florentine. Again, she is not named thoughtlessly. The word’s primary meaning is “blossoming,” and Florentine is indeed a pretty girl of nineteen. But a “Florentine” is also a flat, brittle pastry, and these adjectives describe Florentine’s shape and manner: she’s very thin, and she puts up a haughty, dismissive front to disguise her fear and insecurity.

A Florentine is also an inhabitant of Florence, which suggests Savonarola’s famous “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and Florentine’s main characteristic is her shallow vanity. She exists by reflection: her own reflection in mirrors, and the reflection of herself in the eyes of other people. She works at the lunch counter of the “five and dime,” and although she gives some of her earnings to her mother, she uses the rest to buy adornments: cheap makeup, cheap perfume, cheap trinkets. Her daydreams involve leading men on and then rejecting them, but she tries this once too often, and finds herself falling in love; although it’s a love that’s mixed with pride and avarice, because what she really wants is to conquer and possess.

As in Wuthering Heights, and indeed as in the True Romance magazines popular in the 1940s, she has two suitors. One of them is cast in the Linton mould—a cut above Florentine socially, idealistic, and a nice guy, but not a man to whom she is drawn sexually. The other is a quasi-Byronic, cynical, passion-inspiring no-goodnik, like Heathcliff. Here the plots diverge, for in Wuthering Heights the no-goodnik is devoted to the heroine, while in Bonheur d’Occasion he has his way with her and then skips town.

Florentine finds that her first slip from virtue—which is described more like a semi-rape—has left her pregnant. The man involved is suggestively named: Jean Lévesque. In Quebec, “Jean” is always John the Baptist—a hermit and a Herodias-denouncing misogynist. “Lévesque” is “bishop.” As we are told by another character, Jean doesn’t like women much. So, no hope from him, even if Florentine could locate him; which, humiliatingly, she can’t.

Terror is the word used by Roy to describe Florentine’s state of mind when she discovers her condition. She’s frantic: disgrace and ruin are staring her in the face. Should her pregnancy become known, her family’s last shreds of self-respect would be destroyed. And where could she turn? There was no social support for unmarried mothers at that time. It would be almost impossible for her to get a (highly illegal) abortion; indeed, the thought doesn’t even cross Florentine’s mind.

Pregnant girls might be packed off to a “home for unwed mothers,” usually run by a church; the neighbours would be told they’d gone to visit an aunt, but everyone knew what that meant. Their babies would be removed from them at birth, and either offered for adoption or placed in an orphanage. The consequent loss of respectability would affect a girl’s ability to get a job, and she might even end up as a low-rent prostitute of the kind that some of the novel’s men are in the habit of frequenting. No wonder Florentine is distraught.

Seduced and abandoned, sometimes pregnant, sometimes not, the list of such fictional girls in nineteenth-century novels is long, as is the list of consequences: poorhouses, madness, suicide, prostitution, starvation, suicide. Such women had to be punished. Even if a girl had not actually “fallen” but had been trapped in compromising circumstances, the result would be the same: Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss is just as “ruined” as Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and so is Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

But tough little Florentine has a strong will to survive, and devises a solution for herself. Without telling anyone of her plight, she goes after her other suitor—nice but not sexy—and hooks him into marriage, even though she doesn’t love him. Tellingly, her saviour is called Emmanuel. He’s in the army and about to go overseas, so she acquires not only a father for the child, but a war-wife allowance that will enable her to live in relative comfort. Salvation comes to her through the war. Her happiness may be second-rate, but at least it’s something. And she buys a new coat.

One of Roy’s accomplishments in Bonheur d’Occasion is her rejection of received pieties. Not for her the noble, good-hearted peasant: Rose-Anna’s mother, who still lives the rural life, is a cold-hearted, criticizing monster, although generous with food. Not for Roy, either, the virtuous poor: these people are too hard-pressed for virtue. (At one moment, when Rose-Anna is praying and might, in another, earlier novel, have had a vision of a saint, she has instead a vision of a huge roll of dollar bills.) Rose-Anna’s dogged perseverance is amazing, but she’s also a dreary pain in the neck.

The only character who might be called morally virtuous is the modestly middle-class Emmanuel. But he’s deluded by his own idealism, especially when it comes to Florentine. He makes her acquaintance only because he’s slumming: the poor sap is afflicted with asocial conscience, which leads him to hang out with the no-hopers of Saint-Henri, and to marry down. Not surprisingly, his own family is not pleased by the match.

Roy’s refusal to buy into earlier views of “the poor” while at the same time suggesting that they were owed a better deal was certainly part of the novel’s success. And its moment of publication was propitious: the war was ending, and those who had survived it were ready to consider a fairer distribution of wealth.

But perhaps the biggest contribution that Bonheur d’Occasion made to its society was in the area of women’s rights. Roy doesn’t use the language of feminism; in fact, first wave get-the-vote feminism was by that time outmoded, and the language of the sexually liberated second wave had not yet been invented. So Roy must show rather than tell, and what she shows is a situation that is both cruel and unjust. How can a human being be expected to give birth to, feed, and support so many children, with almost no help at all? Quebeckers took a good look at its own policies through the eyes of Roy, as did hundreds of thousands of readers outside Quebec, and they were appalled.

Even before the second wave of feminism got underway in English North America, it was already underway, in a different form, in Quebec. The Quiet Revolution of the sixties broke the grip of the Church on women’s reproduction. The daughters of the dozen-child families refused to emulate their mothers. It’s no accident that the feminist movement in Quebec was earlier, stronger, and more vociferous than anywhere else in North America: there was more to react against. From having had the highest birth rate on the continent, Quebec moved within decades to having the lowest. This has caused other problems, but that’s another story.

Gabrielle Roy at 63, near her summer cottage in Petite-Riviere-Saint-Francois, Quebec. (Photograph from “Album Gabrielle Roy”, from Francois Ricard)

7. Second novel syndrome

It’s not always a blessing for a writer to have an astonishing success with a first novel: expectations for the second one can be paralyzing.

And when a novel has hit the keynotes of its own time so exactly, what to do when that time has passed? By the end of the 1940s when the excitement over Bonheur d’Occasion had died down, the anti-communist reaction had set in. Roy couldn’t return to the subject matter that had made her fortune. The two novels Gabrielle Roy wrote after Bonheur d’Occasion were both “little people” novels, but the little people were not from urban slums in Montreal.

The first was La Petite Poule d’Eau, that text I sweated over in 1956. (The translation was titled Where Nests the Water-Hen, which makes the book sound flowery and Tennysonian, which it decidedly is not.) For her setting, Roy turned to the Petite Poule d’Eau region in Manitoba, where she’d taught briefly before her European excursion.

As with Bonheur d’Occasion, the French title is much more appropriate. “Poule” means “hen,” and invokes the Biblical hen who gathers her chickens together. It’s a motherly word, and aptly describes Luzina Tousignant, its heroine. And it’s La Petite Poule d’Eau, not La Grande Poule d’Eau: this world is little, not big.

“Luzina,” like “Azarius,” is an uncommon name. My guess is that Roy chose it for its component “Luz,” meaning light. “Our Lady of Light” is an epithet of the Virgin Mary, and Luzina is a light-bringer, for her e orts are focused on bringing education to her very remote corner of Manitoba so that her children can pursue a better life than hers. (They do, but the price she pays is that they leave her.)

La Petite Poule d’Eau is a sweet book, mild and nostalgic in comparison with Bonheur d’Occasion. You can see why the Ontario curriculum-setters of the 1950s would have decided—quite apart from its social-justice views—that the first book was not healthy fare for teenagers. Florentine’s unwanted pregnancy would have led to outraged letters from parents, sniggering in the classroom, and embarrassment for Madame Wiacek.

Not that La Petite Poule d’Eau was without its pregnancies: its yearly pregnancies. This too was a terrifying prospect for the young female readers of my generation in those days before effective birth control. Would we, too, end up dropping babies like kittens? But Luzina regards her pregnancies with equanimity, for they give her a chance to travel, expand her horizons, and go shopping in a city.

Roy’s next book of this period was Alexandre Chenevert (1954). It, too, is about a little person, but he’s little in so many ways that readers have to stretch to find him interesting. Roy’s attempt is heroic: place a constricted individual in a constricted situation, then bombard him with the noise of post-war modernity—advertisements everywhere, constant bad news in the papers. Alexandre doesn’t enjoy anything— not his marriage, nor his one vacation to the countryside, which ends with nervous boredom. To make his life complete, he then gets cancer and dies a painful death. Only at the end of the book does he have a vision of human sympathy.

I tried hard with Alexandre Chenevert. Perhaps I could connect it with Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, but it would suffer by comparison. Or I could tie it in with Marshall McLuhan—the global village, of which Alexandre is unwillingly a part, and the interest in advertisements, explored earlier and more humorously in McLuhan’s 1951 book, The Mechanical Bride. But finally, after pausing to applaud the attempt, the empathy, the writing, and the closely observed detail, I must turn briskly to the next stage of Roy’s career. It is a lot more compelling, for it concerns the formation and role of the artist.

8. Portraits of the artist

Over the eleven years between 1955 and 1966, Roy published three books that explore the process of becoming an artist: Rue Deschambault (1955), translated as Street of Riches; La Montagne Secrète (1961), translated as The Hidden Mountain; and La Route d’Altamont (1966), translated as The Road Past Altamont.

The second book of this trio—La Montagne Secrète—is about the spiritual growth of a trapper and self-taught painter, Pierre Cadorai, whose subject and milieu is the boreal forest of Canada. The model was the Swiss-born painter René Richard, who, like Roy, had spent time on the prairies and also in the north, and who became her friend when he was already an established artist and she an established writer. It’s perhaps not much of a leap to suggest that the admirable and adventurous coureur de bois figure of earlier francophone Canadian literature, seeker and capturer of beavers, has morphed into the admirable and adventurous artist figure, seeker and capturer of beauty, that Roy depicts.

Again, the book is of its time: Farley Mowat, with People of the Deer (1952), had already kicked off a new look at the northern and natural themes that had preoccupied several earlier generations of writers and painters. But Roy was less fascinated with the North, as such, than with the aesthetic and mystical experiences that her hero experiences in these surroundings—and the process by which his experiences are transformed into art.

The two books flanking The Hidden Mountain belong to a noteworthy literary family that we might call “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl.” This motif is opened in Street of Riches and expanded somewhat—though obliquely—in The Road Past Altamont, as Roy picks up the thread of journey-as-story and the transmission of narrative gifts from one person, and generation, to another.

These books are part of a larger tradition: the female writer as her own subject. Women had been writing for some time, but it was only with the popularity of the Bildungsroman—the novel of formation or education—that they began to write fictions about the formative years of female writers. (None of Jane Austen’s heroines is a writer, for instance. Nor are any of George Eliot’s.)

Frequently, but not always, these semi-autobiographical fictions are disguised as “girls’ books.” The grandmother of these artistic literary girls may well be Jo, of Little Women fame (1868). And one of her granddaughters is certainly Sybylla Melvyn of the Australian Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career (1901). Another is L.M. Montgomery’s Emily, of the Emily of New Moon series (1923). Emily, in turn, was an inspiration to Alice Munro, who produced her own version of the genesis of a female writer, The Lives of Girls and Women. Margaret Laurence’s variations can be found in her story collection, A Bird in the House (1970), and again in The Diviners (1974). Mavis Gallant’s account of her own formation is perhaps most compactly contained in her “Linnet Muir” stories. In francophone Canada, the female writer perhaps most occupied with the process of becoming a female writer has been Marie-Claire Blais.

Why so many in Canada? Three possible factors may have encouraged artistically inclined young Canadian women to try their hand at writing in the first half of the twentieth century. One was the narrow range of other options. School teaching, secretarial work, nursing, home economics in its various forms, or dressmaking: that was about it. (Some jobs were opening up in journalism, though not yet on the news desks.) Another factor was the closeness of much of Canada to frontier conditions, and the resulting attitudes toward artistic pursuits. Men should handle practicalities: farming, fishing, engineering, prospecting, logging, medicine, the law. Art—flower painting, amateur acting, or a dabbling in verse—was an acceptable hobby for women, as long as they weren’t serious about it. And writing was something you could do at home in your spare time.

But the third factor was the presence of women writers, in the world but also in Canada, who were already both successful and visible. In England, there were Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield; in the United States, Edith Wharton, Margaret Mitchell, Katherine Anne Porter, Clare Boothe Luce, and Pearl S. Buck, this last a winner of the Nobel Prize. In Canada, L.M. Montgomery and Mazo de la Roche. And in France, Colette—a national institution, and frequently the subject of her own writing. Writing might not have been encouraged for girls, but it was not seen as completely impossible for them, because other women had succeeded at it.

The writerly coming-of-age stories in Rue Deschambault are set in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, when Roy was a young child, then an older child, and then a teenager. On the surface of it, the stories—at least the ones in the first part of the collection— aren’t about writing at all, but about various incidents that take place in and around the family house in Saint Boniface, where the semi-autobiographical “Christine” is growing up.

The street is heterogeneous: There are two African-Canadian boarders, an Italian immigrant family, a woebegone Dutch suitor. Then there are the incoming settlers Christine’s father is helping: Doukhobors and Ruthenians. This is far from being a tightly enclosed francophone community. Instead it is—like the book itself—loosely structured, shifting, multilingual, and filled with stories both happy and tragic. This is multiculturalism at its most generous.

Toward the end of the book, in the story called “The Voice of the Pools,” young Christine, now sixteen, climbs up to the attic room where she has done so much reading, and looks out the window. In this fictionalized version (for Roy proposed several others over the years), this is the moment at which the writerly vocation strikes.

“I saw then,” she says, “not what I should later become, but that I must set forth on my way to becoming it. It seemed to me that I was at once in the attic and also far away—in the loneliness of the future; and that from yonder, committed at so great a distance, I was showing myself the road. . . . And so I had the idea of writing. What and why I knew not at all. I would write. It was like a sudden love. . . . Having as yet nothing to say. . . . I wanted to have something to say.”

She announces this discovery to her long-suffering mother, who reacts the way you might expect: “Maman seemed upset.”

As mamans are. But this Maman goes on to say quite a mouthful:

“Writing,” [Maman] told me sadly, “is hard. It must be the most exacting business in the world . . . if it is to be true, you understand! Is it not like cutting yourself in two . . . one half trying to live, the other watching, weighing?”

And she went on: “First the gift is needed; if you have not that, it’s heartbreak; but if you have it, it’s perhaps equally terrible . . . For we say the gift; but perhaps it would be better to say the command. And here is a very strange gift . . . not wholly human. I think other people never forgive it. This gift is a little like a stroke of ill luck which withdraws others, which cuts us off from almost everyone . . .”

Ah, the poète maudit, doomed by the poisonous gift. It was indeed the age, if not of the doomed writer, then at least of the consecrated one: the priest of art, forging the uncreated conscience of his race, like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. If you were a woman artist, so much the worse: no helpful wife for you, you’d be on your own. Maman doesn’t include gender in her response, and neither does Christine; but considering the time of writing, that’s what would have been hovering unsaid.

However, young Christine isn’t buying Maman’s warning wholesale. “I still hoped that I could have everything: both a warm and true life, like a shelter . . . and also time to capture its reverberations . . .time to withhold myself a little along the road, and then to catch up with the others, to rejoin them and cry joyously, ‘Here I am, and here is what I’ve found for you along the way! . . . Have you waited for me? . . . Aren’t you waiting for me? . . . Oh, do wait for me!’”

It’s not a certainty, this pleasant dual future. Or not in the story. Though Gabrielle Roy did manage to have it all, after a fashion, in her life.

9. Gabrielle Roy: Messenger of the future

Gabrielle Roy took the names of her characters seriously, so let me conclude with a small riff on her own name. “Roy” is a king: it sets the standard high. But “Gabrielle” comes from the Archangel Gabriel, messenger of messengers. Gabriel delivers “good” messages—to the Virgin Mary, the news that she’s going to have an unexpected baby, but not just any old baby—and also “bad” messages—here comes the end of the world.

What is the role of the writer? Every age, and indeed every writer, has something different in mind. For Roy, in Bonheur d’Occasion, it was the annunciation of the future to the present. It’s pleasing to think of her turning up at Rose-Anna’s moment of worst despair and saying, “The future is going to be better.”

In her other books, there’s a different mission. She opens the curtains on windows people did not suspect were there—a remote corner of Manitoba, the ordinary life of an ordinary man, the lost but teeming past of her natal province, the many journeys of an artist—and asks readers to look through. Then—whatever the smallness, harshness, or oddness of the view—to understand, and then to empathize. For the Angel Gabriel is above all the angel of communication, and communication was a skill Roy valued highly.

The 2004 Canadian twenty-dollar bill has a quotation from Gabrielle Roy on the back, in both French and English: “Nous connaîtrions-nous seulement un peu nous-mêmes sans les arts?” “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?”

No, we could not. As we contemplate our politically splintered society, as we reach the limits of data-collecting and the divisions and specializations of science, and as we finally turn back toward a more holistic view of human being, Roy’s vision has more relevance to us than ever.

Excerpted from Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America. Copyright © 2016 by Generic Productions Inc. “Gabrielle Roy” © Margaret Atwood. Published by Signal, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Photographs: Francois Ricard, Album Gabrielle Roy, Montréal, Editions Boreal, 2014.
Web producer: Adrian Lee
Contributing photo editor: Jalani Morgan
Published: March 22, 2017